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Penn State: Time To Blow Up The NCAA And Start Again

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"This is a wake-up call for every university with a major sports program... What you see in the Freeh Report is a university that keeps the board out of the loop about important issues, fails to comply properly with the federal Clery Act, and more generally treats the athletic program as a free standing, separately managed entity not responsive to University concerns or oversights. And I strongly suspect this is basically the same arrangement at almost every school that has a football team that's been ranked in the Top 25 in the past couple of decades."
-- Daniel Filler, professor at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia

With no MLB games scheduled, and not much (non-Upton) Diamondbacks news to talk about, I'm going off-topic. Today, former FBI Director Louis Freeh issued his report on the horrific abuse that went on at Penn State for decades, and it's hard to see how it could have been much more damning. "Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized," Freeh stated.

It's just the latest and most tragic indictment of the college sports system in America.

As a foreigner, the near-obsession with college sports in the United States baffles me completely. In the UK, there is little or no national coverage of such things - the only exception is the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat-race, and this is as much pure tradition for an event which started in 1829, as any actual interest [though the alumni include Hugh Laurie, a rower for Cambridge in 1980]. Otherwise, college sports are a very minor diversion, of interest almost solely to the participants. No-one gets in to Cambridge just because they can row well. You don't rack up more official Nobel Prize laureates than any other university that way.

Not so in "the only country in the world that hosts big-time sports at institutions of higher learning." Here, everyone knows the name of Joe Paterno, adored football coach at Penn State for 46 years - and, it now appears from Freeh's report, long-term child molestation enabler. How many know or revere the name of Paul Berg? He's the sole Nobel Prize winner affiliated with Penn State, a graduate who shared in the 1980 Chemistry award for his work on recombinant DNA technology. Demands by alumni for him to be honored with a statue, or to name the main library after him instead of Paterno, are notable by their absence.

But beware the wrath of the student body if you dare to interfere with their beloved football program, as a not insignificant section will turn violent. After Paterno was fired on November 9th last year, a demonstration took place on the campus, involving 4-5,000 people. According to State College police:

"The crowd quickly turned from a peaceful demonstration to a riotous mob. The mob began damaging vehicles and rolled a news van. The mob attempted to light vehicles on fire, and tore down light posts and street signs. The mob threw rocks, bottles and hard objects at the police and citizens. Citizens and officers were injured by the mob's criminal behavior."

This was not to protest a senior faculty figure's systematic abuse of children. Or even because school executives allegedly "helped cover up suspicions of child abuse to protect the school and its vaunted football program." No, they were rioting solely because Paterno had been fired - an act which, in hindsight, seems far too little, too late. This seems to me to be among the most godawful cases of misplaced priorities I have ever seen. And, according to Prof. Filler, it's "basically the same arrangement" at every major footballing school. Not that they all result in young boys being raped, of course - but it's symptomatic of a sports-based culture which is extraordinarily screwed-up.

It doesn't even start at college, but an an earlier age - in high-school, where academic achievement is sidelined in favor of athletic accomplishments. To me, that's putting the cart before the horse. While sports and physical education are part of a good education, they should absolutely be secondary to...well, the actual education. The over-emphasis instead placed on them by the American system, instead of encouraging and rewarding intellectual ability and growth is, to me, a large factor in the "dumbing down" of society in general. I tend to think we need and should encourage smarter citizens, far more than ones who can throw a pigskin oval accurately.

Among the plethora of other problems which have been seen in collegiate programs nationwide are: questionable or even criminal behavior by student athletes which is tolerated, or swept under the carpet entirely; betting scandals; academic fraud; and recruiting violations on a massive scale. Billions of dollars are generated - yet the actual sportsmen and women involved are not given a cent. Indeed, the regulations expressly prevent this. Is it any wonder corruption is rife, on a scale almost unimaginable anywhere else? This is absolutely nothing new: it has been part and parcel of the enterprise for almost as long as there have been college sports. The Atlantic gives some history:

In 1929, the Carnegie Foundation made headlines with a report, "American College Athletics," which concluded that the scramble for players had "reached the proportions of nationwide commerce." Of the 112 schools surveyed, 81 flouted NCAA recommendations with inducements to students ranging from open payrolls and disguised booster funds to no-show jobs at movie studios. Fans ignored the uproar, and two-thirds of the colleges mentioned told The New York Times that they planned no changes. In 1939, freshman players at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike because they were getting paid less than their upperclassman teammates.

Almost (though not quite) exclusively, these scandals involve gridiron or basketball. Baseball seems like a paragon of clean living in comparison, and I would stress that the vast majority of college sports appear benign in nature, or at least neutral. Perhaps this is because the NBA and NFL pull players directly from college; even in baseball, there's usually a significant gap between college and the major-leagues. But a far likelier component is simply the money, led by the hundreds of millions of dollars handed over in TV rights. I'm sorry: did I say "hundreds of millions"? Correction. The PAC-12 TV rights through 2023-24 cost ESPN + FOX three billion dollars.

It's this tidal-wave of wealth which has kept the schools sucking on the teat of college sport. And, as we saw at Penn State, left them willing to turn a blind eye, literally to anything, rather than risk rocking the boat. Everyone knew this, down to the lowest-level Penn State employee, and as Freeh said, "If that is the culture on the bottom, God help the culture on the top.". He was speaking in particular reference to the following testimony, given by a caretaker there:

"Janitor B explained to the Special Investigative Counsel that reporting the incident "would have been like going against the President of the United States in my eyes." "I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone." He explained "football runs this University," and said the University would have closed rank to protect the football program at all costs."
-- Testimony from the Freeh Report

You couldn't make that shit up. It's physically chilling stuff, and if you're looking for a justification as to why the entire system should be razed to the ground, there you go. A system which has gone its own way over multiple decades, and that protects people like Jerry Sandusky, can't be "reformed" or "changed," any more than the pedophile in question. If the NCAA had any guts, they'd fold, not only Penn State's football program but those of every other campus in the nation. Because as noted above, the only difference is the others don't have a child-molesting coach. Or, at least, not one we know about - given how long the truth was concealed at Penn State, who can say for sure?

What should happen is a complete re-evaluation of the entire purpose of, and importance placed on, sports at schools and colleges. Quite how you manage such a mammoth undertaking... I've no idea. Seriously, I've stared at this paragraph for 10 minutes, and can't even figure out where to start. Probably by ensuring football coaches aren't paid 70% more than teachers. Incentives for academic donations over non-academic ones [a frequent claim is that these sports are "fund-raisers" - I don't see why that has to be the case, except for it being the way it has] And a very strict limit on televising games, with local coverage only.

Of course, nothing of the sort will occur: there's far too much money and power at stake for those involved to give it up. There will, I predict, be much hand-wringing, demands for Something To Be Done, and possibly even a few token changes. But the net result will be no change. The TV funds keep rolling in, the "student athletes" (a term invoked by the NCAA largely so they can't claim workman's comp for on-field injuries) will remain exploited, and educational institutions will keep finding their names tarnished by association with scandal. But people will still be able to riot, choosing to side with a football coach who, for years, aided and abetted a child molester.

"How can we contribute to the building of a decent law-abiding society in this country if educational institutions are willing to suffer their principles to be prostituted and involve young people in that prostitution for any purpose - and much less, for the purpose of winning some games and developing an ill-gotten recognition and income?"

That was the Rev. John Lo Shiavo, announcing the termination of the University of San Francisco's basketball program. He was speaking in 1982. Hard to say that things have gotten any better since. indeed, thinking about the young kids unfortunate enough to come into Jerry Sandusky's cross-hairs, the words "involve young people in that prostitution" now have a far sicker alternate reading. .

Normal SnakePit service will be back shortly...